So you didn’t get into a contest you entered. It’s a tough feeling, no matter how much the hosts tell you they had to pass up entries they loved. What do you do now?
Before I got my agent, I entered my share of contests. Some I got into, some I didn’t, but each one was a helpful and productive experience. Here are some things I’ve found useful after not getting in:
- Read the contest hashtag looking for general tips and feedback. See what you can learn from them to help improve your query/pitch/first 250 for next time.
- If you don’t have experienced writer CPs yet, use the contest hashtag to find some. Or just exchange first pages and queries for crits. Your fellow writers are an amazing resource.
- Read the entries that did get in. Figure out what they’re doing right. Apply those lessons to your own entry.
- While you’re reading those entries that got in, realize this: Whoa, there are a lot of awesome unpublished books out there. You don’t need to feel bad that you didn’t get in, because these are some fantastic books.
- Also realize yours may be just as good or better. And if it’s not yet, you can MAKE it just as good or better.
- If you got any feedback from the contest, learn from it. Don’t implement it blindly, but think it through. Look at your work with honest, open eyes, and hone it until it’s so sharp you’ll bleed if you touch it.
- Continue to follow the contest. Watch which entries get requests or votes. If any feedback is posted publicly on the featured entries, read it. This is your big chance to see what works live, and get a glimpse inside the process. It’s a great way to figure out what works and what doesn’t.
- Revise your query/first page/pitch to make them better… IF you have a clear path and vision to do so. Don’t blindly rearrange the deck chairs if you’re not sure it will help.
- Get more feedback on your revised query to make sure it’s working. Then, if there’s another contest coming up with fresh judges, enter it! Or if you’re ready, send out a query or two. There really is a lot of luck involved in finding the right contest judge/agent/editor for your book. You have to keep rolling those dice if you’re going to win the game!
GOOD LUCK! I have been there, and my heart goes out to everyone who hasn’t made the cut. Keep working hard and improving your craft, and your time will come. I’m rooting for you!
I’ve noticed a rule. Whenever a character thinks “Surely [X],” the opposite of [X] is absolutely guaranteed to happen.
Let me show you what I mean:
Surely an orphan kid could never beat the reigning champion.
Surely this must all be a nightmare, and I’ll wake up any second.
That look must mean something else—surely he couldn’t like little old me.
Her own house must surely be safe from creepy axe murderers.
You get the idea. That orphan kid is getting a trophy, it’s not a dream, he likes you, and OMG get out of the house it’s full of creepy axe murderers.
The moment you read that surely, you know: this character is wrong, or lying to themselves.The exact opposite is true. You’re sure of it.
But surely there must be some exceptions!
…I just can’t think of any. So now I have to add that word to my RUINED FOREVER list, and refrain from ever using it again.
Writing queries was never my favorite part of being a writer, and I don’t pretend to be an expert, but I did learn some things during my time in the querying trenches. Here are some of them:
- There are three things your query must clearly convey: character, conflict, stakes. Focus on those. They’re so important they’re the only things I’m bolding in this post.
- Character: Give us a sense of what it’ll be like to be with your MC for the length of a book. If you talk about a love interest, don’t forget to give us at least a couple words about them to let us know what they’re like, too (besides “hot” or “cute”).
- Stakes: Make them high, specific, and personal. Don’t forget emotional stakes can be more compelling than life-or-death ones.
- Conflict: Make sure to tell us both about external and internal conflicts, ideally in such a way that we can see for ourselves how the external conflict will make the internal conflict even worse (or vice versa). Also make sure you show how your character has agency in this conflict.
- Avoid vagueness. This doesn’t mean you have to lay everything out in precise detail, but you can’t be vague or resort to cliche phrases.
- Don’t try to be too clever (especially with your first line). Let your story speak for itself.
- Write tight. Skip subplots, don’t overexplain the setting/backstory… focus in on that core conflict.
- Mention as few proper nouns (characters, place names, names for special SFF elements) as possible.
- Keep it crystal clear. It should read well on a skim-through, because sometimes it may not get more than that.
- Make sure whatever is awesome about your story is coming through organically in the query. If its strongest hook is its humor and wit, get that in there. Lyrical voice? Ditto. Terrifyingly creepy mood, or breathtakingly realized setting? Yes. But don’t force it if it won’t go.
- Focus on the main character. If it’s multi-POV, make that clear.
- Make it clean and error-free. Read it aloud to make sure it flows well. Your query is a writing sample.
There’s more, of course. For instance, getting your query critiqued by knowledgable fellow writers is a must… never send out a new version of your query without getting eyes on it first!
And don’t shy away from accepting that sometimes a problem in your query is actually a problem with your book. In writing Twitter pitches for an early version of one novel, I realized that the most interesting, high-stakes conflict—the one I wanted to put in the Twitter pitch—wasn’t given a central place in that draft of the book. I revised the book to focus on that conflict, and it was much better. Boiling your book down into a query can teach you a lot about how to make your manuscript better!
I could go on, but this is long enough already. Keep calm, query on, and good luck!